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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Chamber Symphony op.73a [34:13] (String Quartet no.3, arr. Rudolf Barshai)
Traditional Turkish Dance, Dance from Goicea, Romanian Folk Dances [2:49]
Traditional Suite of Romanian Melodies [3:49]
Chamber Symphony op.83a [26:55] (String Quartet no.4, arr. Rudolf Barshai)
Traditional Russian Klezmer Dance [3:45]
The Re:Orchestra/Roberto Beltrán-Zavala
rec. August 2014, Music Center for Dutch Radio & Television, Hilversum, The Netherlands
BIS BIS-2227 SACD [72:32]

Just a little while ago, a wonderful disc on Harmonia Mundi came to my notice. It was of Shostakovich’s so-called Chamber Symphonies, Rudolf Barshai’s ‘official’ orchestrations of some of the string quartets. John Quinn reviewed it for MusicWeb and his verdict and sentiment is just about identical to mine. I paraphrase Quinn: Graham Ross and his Ensemble’s outstanding performances – captured in excellent sound – make a wonderful case for these works, and he hopes that this very fine disc will be followed by recordings of Barshai’s arrangements of the Third and Fourth Quartets.

Now another disc with Shostakovich Chamber Symphonies, this time from the “Re:Orchestra” under Roberto Beltrán-Zavala on BIS, has come across my desk. Quinn again: “Good music – but two new recordings of that repertoire in such short succession? And how is it going to be better than Ross & Co.?” Well, happily this disc is unwittingly the very follow-up that John Quinn had wished for – in that it features precisely those two quartets (and no overlap): different group, different label, but qualitatively at just that level of performance and production quality. The Re:Orchestra adds little enlightening interludes to the Shostakovich: traditional music that informs the “notational music” that surrounds it: a little bit like the Takács Quartet together with the Hungarian folk group Muzsikás were doing when they paired Bartók string quartets with Hungarian folk tunes in concert. The Re:Orchestra’s performances are technically flawless; they have a lightness, almost a friendly buoyancy to them, and if any criticism could be made about them at all, it’d be that they lack the bite and grit that we tend to expect with Shostakovich, even where he probably didn’t intend it.

As Robert Reilly writes in Surprised by Beauty – A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music "if Shostakovich’s symphonies are tombstones, the 15 quartets are the flowers he lays on the graves. By any measure, this is some of the most extraordinary music written during the 20th century… It never loses its reference points in song and dance. This is because Shostakovich’s interest is not in abstraction but in expression… The ghostly dances and songs that pass through Shostakovich’s quartets are from a world that Lenin and Stalin attempted to destroy—the world of the human soul, from which emanate the most basic impulses to sing praise and to dance in delight, which is why we still listen.” This hints at a lighter take than we often associate with the Shostakovich string quartets; especially for those of us who consider them dark works of brooding confession. Reilly is onto something.

Without the dated sound and the harsh edge of the absolutely wonderful and indispensable Borodin or Beethoven Quartet recordings, and in state of the art sound and with an impeccable chamber orchestra going at it, that airy, almost flowery aspect comes out much more notably. Sometimes this is achieved by a conventional quartet like the polished Mandelring on Audite. These fantastic Barshai arrangements are something of a happy hybrid between the symphonies and string quartets of Shostakovich: presumably the reason why they are so popular.

The interludes of traditional music (compiled and arranged by Vasile Nedea) are catchy and head-bopping sequences that really add to this disc – like a nice amuse-gueule between courses.

The Netherlands-based, pan-European Re:Orchestra led by Roberto Beltrán-Zavala was founded in 2009 and has carved out a niche for themselves by virtue of enthusiastic performances and clever programming. Qualities that are both on display on this disc.

Similar but different: The Amsterdam Sinfonietta recorded their take on Quartets Nos. 2 & 4 (both in their own string orchestra arrangements) on Channel Classics – and I wasn’t quite so thrilled (review). More recently the Dogma Chamber Orchestra has recorded the 8th in a string orchestra arrangement, which I liked very much (Berthold Records/MDG), though the kicker on that disc are the Twenty Four Preludes op.34 thus arranged. But really, the Barshai versions are more satisfying than the souped-up string quartet versions and between this and the Graham Ross/Dmitri Ensemble’s recording, you’ve got the finest – certainly neatest, liveliest, lightest – performances to date.

Jens F. Laurson

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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